Thursday, December 27, 2007

Traditional Truth

Read the prior message in this series: Experiencing Truth

Tradition is the third branch of my developing epistemology, but this is where my analogy with the co-equal branches of the US Constitution breaks down. Tradition is not co-equal with logic and experience. Rather, it is subservient to the two pillars and essentially an extension of the pillar of experience.

I include tradition in my epistemology to avoid the cultural myopia and familiarity bias in my community of truth seekers. In the strictest sense, tradition extends experience through the lens of history. Tradition acknowledges we are "standing on the shoulders of giants" as Isaac Newton once said. In the introduction to this series I wrote, "Discovering truth is not a solo venture." Tradition differentiates between the verified experiences shared within my truth seeking community and the collective experiences recorded by the great minds of history that have traveled the path before us. Einstein stood on the shoulders of Newton, and he too acknowledged the importance of a comprehensive rather than reductionist view of reality.
I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth. (Letter from Einstein to Robert Thornton, 7 December 1944, EA 61-574)
I'm very interested in feedback on my pursuit of truth, and I'd love to hear your story.  Comments here are welcomed and encouraged.  I can also be reached through Facebook if you're one of those social networking types, not that there's anything wrong with that. Social networking sites have their place, but the attention spans tend to be microscopic in that environment. I've toyed around with a website called TruthMapping, but so far I haven't met anyone who is a tenacious enough truth seeker to dialog with me in that forum.

If you took the time to read this entire series from the beginning, please let me know. I enjoy a good old fashioned email exchange, but I'm old school that way. At least with email you don't need a stamp.  Truth seeking isn't for the faint of heart or short attention span folks. It requires thinking, and thinking is hard work most people aren't willing to do these days. It's just easier to go watch TV or pass the time watching YouTube on your smartphone. I really wish more people were willing to wrestle with the Big Questions. That's why I created

Participate in this series: What's Next? Let's talk about it!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Experiencing Truth

Read the prior message in this series: Reasonable Truth

Human beings exist within an objective reality where we think, perceive, will, emote, and act. Thinking is the "reason" of my first epistemological pillar. Perceiving leads to experience which is my second pillar.

Experience provides the data on which reason operates. Experience is our perception of the reality around us, and it becomes input for our logic processor, i.e. our minds. It is critical that we distinguish between experience as perception of external reality versus internal experiences or "mental states" which are not objective. If we do not make this distinction, our will and emotions muddy the clarity and certainty gained by objective experience which can be independently verified by third-party eye witnesses.

Like the first pillar of reason, I accept objective experience axiomatically as my second pillar of truth. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee our senses give reliable data, nor can we guarantee our reason will reliably override faulty perceptions. Still, I propose that reason and experience are "properly basic" tools for all objective truth seekers.

I'm open to criticisms of these two pillars of truth, but in order to critique them you would have to invoke reason and experience to deny them thereby establishing their axiomatic nature. I would also welcome any ideas about a third pillar that would be as axiomatic as the first two.

There is one more governing branch in my epistemology, but it is not a pillar. I hold more loosely to tradition than I do the pillars of reason and experience.

Read the next entry in this series: Traditional Truth

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Reasonable Truth

Read the prior message in this series: Developing My Epistemology

Reason is the first pillar in the checks and balances of my epistemology. Reason is the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic. You cannot be a truth seeker without sound logic. The necessity of logic is so fundamental it is "properly basic" or "axiomatic" for truth seeking. Reason is a foundational premise.

Still, logic alone is insufficient for discovering truth because we have to figure out the meaning of information.  Logic is just a tool to connect meaningful data. I'm continually surprised at how poorly some people, including myself, reason through things.  "Know thyself" is a famous ancient Greek aphorism.  I know myself enough to recognize my incredible capacity to talk myself into things, reason emotionally rather than rationally, and justify things in order to view them as I want to see them rather than they way they truly are.

Truth seeking is hard, and often uncomfortable.  This is why a community of truth seekers is essential for staying on the path. Human beings aren't always reasonable, and we often need help discovering our logical deficiencies or inconsistencies.

"[Human] logic is a good mistress but a very bad master."
-- John G. Reisinger

Read the next entry in this series: Experiencing Truth

Monday, December 24, 2007

Developing My Epistemology

Read the prior message in this series: "By What Standard?"

Two years ago I set out to write this next article in the series, and it turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. As a Jesus follower, I'd already mentally jumped to the conclusion that the answer to the question "By What Standard?" was the Bible. That was the religious bias I had from birth until I left home. We all have a birth bias in our worldview based on our experiences in our formative years.

Each time I sat down and tried to write a reasonable argument for the Bible being the standard bearer of truth, the argument was circular. I could not adequately defend my conclusion without appealing to that which I already believed. I was stuck because I didn't understand my own epistemology, and couldn't get past my own birth bias. In fact, I didn't even know what epistemology was two years ago!

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity,
and scope. It is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

Over the last couple years I discovered the Bible is no longer a sufficient answer to the question "By What Standard?" This is particularly true in a discussion with anyone who has a post-modern worldview, and most people under thirty (the Millennial generation) have a post-modern worldview. It is their birth bias.

Most Christians accept the Bible as inerrant and infallible on faith, but the skeptic will insist on evidence which is admirable. For the skeptic, inerrancy and infallibility can only be used as a working hypothesis, and then only if the skeptic is brave, honest, and transparent about the reasons for their skepticism. Additionally, the Bible must be interpreted which is no small matter. As I thought about these two problems, I had to develop my own epistemology. I owe a debt of gratitude to an atheist friend of mine who runs the IT department (actually he is the IT department) at the start-up company where we work. Justin and I have nearly perfect agreement on political issues, but we totally disagree on the question of whether or not God exists. It surprised me that someone with whom I shared nearly identical political beliefs could simultaneously hold to a completely opposite theological (dis)belief system.

Justin helped me realize I needed a governing system of checks and balances to keep my truth seeking on track while overcoming my birth bias. While thinking about "a governing set of checks and balances" I remembered my high school civics class and a document famous for this very thing.

The US Constitution is an amazing document. It defines what has become the most successful government experiment in all of human history. The secret to the success of the US Constitution is the delicate set of checks and balances in the distribution of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. So, I developed a loosely analogous set of checks and balances for my own epistemological framework. I call them the court of reason, congress of experience, and executive process of tradition.  I believe truth is knowable using the tools of reason, experience, and tradition within a community of truth seekers.

Why is this important? As discussed in the previous blog in this series, religion can be extremely dangerous. Millions of people have died in the name of religious ideologies. Religions and their sacred texts can be used as pretexts for all sorts of evil behavior like flying airplanes full of people into tall buildings or bombing abortion clinics. Devout Bible believers have fallen into fundamentalist folk religions and deadly cults as a result of uncritical acceptance of ill informed biblical interpretations. This is why I think it is important to understand religion as a set of beliefs that inform us about how we should live.

If the role of religion is to help us know the truth and guide our moral behavior, wouldn't it make sense to examine the truth claims of the major religions that have withstood the test of time? Shouldn't these major religions (not the radical fringe groups) and their ancient wisdom literature be examined on their own merits in the court of reason, the congress of experience, and under the executive process of tradition? In order to do that I had to develop my epistemology.

Aside: I've tested the Book of Mormon, and it failed my epistemological truth tests. This video pretty much summarizes what I wrote in the paper at this link.

Read the next entry in this series: Reasonable Truth